Rick Wong vividly remembers the shock and sadness that rippled through his neighbourhood in 1997 when Edmund Yu was shot and killed by police officers in Chinatown. The killing drew renewed attention to the impact of mental health and homelessness in the city of Toronto, and for Wong, it was a wake up call to how much power the police had in their community.
“There’s always been nervousness, especially around mental health or if the person is acting out of the norm, you never know what’s going to happen [if the police show up],” he says about the historic relations between police and members of the community.
Wong adds that he often reflects on the similarities between the death of Yu and Sammy Yatim, who was also shot and killed by police in Chinatown in 2013 — 16 years after the shooting of Yu. Yatim was believed to be intoxicated and unstable when he was wielding a knife on a busy streetcar. Const. James Forcillo shot him multiple times and was later convicted of attempted murder.
In the 30 years Wong has lived in Chinatown, there hasn’t been much change in the level of trust between community members and the police force. He recalls a recent incident in a nearby park where a resident was doing tai chi with a plastic sword. It didn’t take long for multiple cop cars to show up, surround the man and ask him to lower what they thought was a weapon.
“I don’t want to call 911 if I got an issue, and have a SWAT team show up at the door. That’s not the kind of response you necessarily want to get,” he says.
Toronto Police Service (TPS) has a long history of profiling and marginalizing racialized communities. In 2017 police carding was discontinued in the province, after a Toronto Star analysis found that Black and brown people were more likely to be stopped by Toronto police. Further reports found that TPS were more likely to arrest and charge Black people on marijuana charges, and to inflict use of force.
So when Wong discovered their plan to implement more CCTV cameras in his neighbourhood, he quickly organized and notified the community to attend a consultation meeting with Toronto police in early March.
The roll out of new CCTV cameras is part of a multi-million dollar plan to address the uptick of gun and gang violence in the city of Toronto. The police force is being funded by all levels of government to address this issue, yet community organizers fear this approach of enhancing police surveillance will have a devastating impact on racialized communities.
CCTV cameras have been criticized for their costly and often ineffective use in policing across the country. In 2018, Vancouver city council voted against the installation of police cameras in their entertainment district due to privacy concerns and questions around their effectiveness. Recently, other cities in Ontario, including Windsor and Ottawa, have been considered adding more police cameras to improve public safety.
Although many municipalities across the country are looking to install more CCTV surveillance cameras, communities in Toronto are fighting back. Wong has been working with Friends of Chinatown, a community organization advocating for the rights and liberties of residents in the neighbourhood, to stall the installation of police cameras.
“It’s really important as an organization to maintain a sense of community. And cameras and surveillance… changes the way police interact with one another and within the community,” says Jenn Chan, an organizer with Friends of Chinatown.
A majority of attendees walked out of the meeting after informally voting against the implementation of CCTV cameras in the proposed location. This happened after Chan asked officials how they plan to justify the surveillance of racialized spaces, to which she says they had no answer to.
“Honestly the answer should’ve been, ‘we shouldn’t be justifying that, we shouldn’t be policing racialized bodies, we shouldn’t be surveilling them,'” she says.
Community consultations in the Jane and Finch area also left community organizers, like Sam Tecle, disgruntled with the lack of transparency and data to substantiate the need for more cameras.
“We had so many questions that we poked a lot of holes in, and quite frankly, they didn’t have the answers, because they hadn’t figured it out,” says Tecle who adds that there were more cops than members attending the consultation since they were given so little notice.
“There was no clear cut policy, there was no privacy protection, there’s no process where community members can request to see if they have been caught on tape, and that they would turn that over within 24 hours. They have no infrastructure to do that,” he says.
Tecle started a petition calling for the halt of CCTV installations across the city and allowing more community input. So far he’s collected more than 500 signatures, but with the ongoing state of emergency due to COVID-19, organizing has slowed down.
Connie Osborne, a spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service, says that all relevant stakeholders were consulted before the cameras were installed.
“Cameras are in public space areas which cover traffic and pedestrian movements. They are not monitored in real time and are not accessed by frontline officers unless it is an emergency situation or major event,” Osborne said in an emailed statement.
She further clarified that 200 stakeholders were consulted and 11 information sessions were held across the city. “Residents and businesses expressed that increased safety measures were needed to help them live, work and enjoy their neighbourhoods.”
There are many experts and organizers who believe the future of surveillance is happening now in poor communities. That’s why neighbourhoods around Toronto are pushing back against this plan to put cameras near their homes.
“The consultations were really just a scam. We know this, but it was all we had to slow down the process and try to get more community input,” says Tecle, “It’s no coincidence that the communities are Black, racialized, predominantly working class folks or working poor folks. [By] putting in things to [surveil], and keep watching them, with that approach you think policing is the answer to our social problems.”
Has the government fallen behind on regulating police technology?
As technology continues to advance and evolve, lawmakers haven’t kept up. The lack of relevant and up-to-date legislation has further added controversy to issues around privacy and data collection in the political arena.
“There’s a chilling effect in communities,” says Natasha Tusikov, a criminologist at York University who specializes in police technology and security. Oftentimes, communities will request cameras as a way to solve specific problems like theft or breaking-in and entering.
“But once they are brought in, you can’t control what they’re used for,” she says, adding that cameras are often used to prosecute sex workers or people experiencing homelessness.
According to a study done by McMaster University, one-third of Canadians do not think that law enforcement agencies should use personal information for crime prevention. That number is even higher for visible minorities and Indigenous populations.
“The test of this surveillance [happens] to the people who are very largely racialized and then sometimes the surveillance gets expanded into other classes of society,” Tusikov says.
Many organizers are concerned about the way in which police data is collected and used. Especially because of the historic tension between law enforcement agencies and racialized communities throughout the country.
In February, Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders told the CBC that he had been unaware his officers were using the controversial facial recognition software Clearview AI, after denying its use late last year.
Clearview AI is an American-made facial recognition software that scrapes billions of images from public and social media websites. Since the discovery of its use in 2019 by The New York Times, it’s been scrutinized for its disproportionate identification of people of colour. Police agencies in Nova Scotia, Ontario and Alberta have also admitted to using the software.
Tusikov says this is another example of how software companies mislead law enforcement agencies on the neutrality of predictive policing software. It’s marketed as a “solution” to the systemic racism embedded in these institutions.
“It’s marketed as being race-neutral, gender-neutral, class neutral, of course, the way we use it, the way we put it in, is not,” Tusikov says.
There’s been a growing inclination towards technology by law enforcement agencies across the country. Tusikov worries that this will further commodify security, and implicitly blame poor people who can’t afford surveillance technology, if they become victims of a crime.
“It’s this idea that responsible people have doorbells, they’ve got security systems, they accept CCTV cameras…and we know that’s very problematic, because that implicitly blames poor people, ‘if you don’t have a security system, you’re a bad, irresponsible citizen, [and] you’re being careless with your security,'” she says.
The impact of policing racialized bodies
“To constantly have policing more and more encroached in our lives, I think that’s a danger,” Tecle says. He works with youth in Toronto’s Jane and Finch area who often share their negative police experiences. He says they often plan different routes to get to school and back home, in order to avoid being harassed.
“The idea to keep pumping funding into policing, into surveillance…I think that’s misguided. [We should] use those funds to bump up the safety net of communities, so our schools are more funded, our community centres would be lively places where life can happen.”
While law enforcement agencies continue to try to solve problems with technology, organizers are asking for a different approach to address the root issue of violence in their communities.
Police surveillance will inherently change community dynamics, and Chan worries this will change a neighbourhood she’s always seen as a safe space for Asian youth.
“It is policing racialized bodies,” she says, “This is a place that I normally go to, that I reconnect with my culture… and to have that surveilled, makes you feel like there’s something inherently wrong with the place in which I reconnect with my culture.”
Lidia Abraha is a freelance journalist based in Toronto, whose work has appeared in VICE Canada, NOW Magazine, The Canadian Press and Exclaim! She is the recipient of rabble.ca‘s 2020 Jack Layton Journalism for Change Fellowship. Her work at rabble focuses on some of the issues most urgently affecting racialized and marginalized communities, notably racism in the criminal justice and policing system.